Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Robert Haynes: Why Aren’t Short-Term Mission Teams Using the Bible?

Today’s post is by Rev. Dr. Robert Ellis Haynes, Director of Education & Leadership at World Methodist Evangelism. It is adapted from excerpts from his book Consuming Mission: Towards a Theology of Short-Term Mission and Pilgrimage (Wipf and Stock, 2018). It is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

As a part of my in-depth research in the United Methodist short-term mission (hereafter STM), I interviewed teams to learn more of their motivations for mission service. One question I asked was about the biblical passages and/or verses that informed their mission service. When I posed the question, I expected it to be one of the easiest for team leaders and team members to answer. However, the question brought a level of discomfort for many.

None of the teams in my field research, all of whom were sponsored by United Methodist Churches, reported using an intentional Bible study or mission curriculum before, during, or after their trip. Even some seasoned veterans had trouble providing common passages associated with mission. This trickled down to their team members in terms of the lack of intentional Bible study for their mission teams.

This lack of Scripture in explaining mission is very telling and reflects problems with denominational resources. Consider that the UMVIM Team Leader Handbook does not offer a section on biblical or theological reflection of mission, only a suggestion to download a twenty-five-page devotional guide from their website. In the list of "best practices," the recommendation of "Spiritual Formation" is listed last behind logistical considerations.[1]

A comparable resource offered for volunteers is similarly problematic. A Mission Journey: A Handbook for Volunteers is the resource offered from The United Methodist Church's chief mission agency: the General Board of Global Ministries. This work should be commended for utilizing Scripture more so than the Team Leader Handbook. The material does attempt to articulate a theology of mission aimed at the level of the STM practitioner.

Yet, problems remain. The biblical material seemed to point to the enticement for "Volunteer Mission Experiences and Spiritual Transformation."[2] For example,

"United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) Experiences offer a unique context for spiritual transformation.... [W]e often become so immersed in our busy schedules and the noisy demands of our daily lives that we neglect to care for our souls. The act of going to a different place and leaving our ordinary lives behind may open us to hear God speaking to us."[3]

Such sentiments are firmly couched in the idealization of STM as personal edification. Service billed as mission but aimed at self-fulfilling spiritual growth does not conform to a biblical Wesleyan theology of mission. However, it is interesting that no teams in my research reported using these materials but echoed these sentiments.

A Mission Journey should be affirmed for seeking to articulate a theology for all of mission, including STM, with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries' Mission Theology statement. Though this statement does include language that alludes to biblical messages, there is no explicit instruction to use Scripture as a directive for mission. Additionally, the "Best Practices for UMVIM/VIM (Sending and Hosting Teams)" only lists logistical and cultural concerns, not a directive for scriptural engagement.[4] Even in The United Methodist Church's key mission agencies' statements of mission, biblical engagement was not primary.

Since the Bible is not a significant part of mission training for team leaders or their team members, it may be expected that STMers had difficulties discussing their work with biblical motivations. When teaching a biblical theology for mission is not the primary task for mission leaders and their team members, cultural influences will take over the space theology should occupy. As a result, the wide-spread practice of crafting a meaningful experience for the participant, so predominant in American touristic culture, becomes the driving force for service activities done in the name of mission. Such is the danger of allowing cultural influences to shape ecclesial practice when something other than Scripture becomes the driving force in these activities. Yet, a proper understanding of the role of church, mission, the Kingdom of God, and the missio Dei cannot be found outside of Scripture.

Perhaps the ongoing Wesleyan/Methodist movement can embrace the lessons of its origin to catch a glimpse of its participation in the missio Dei and to do so in the mutual accountability of clergy and laity. Key components of the work of the missio Dei in the current context will include a biblical understanding of a radical solidarity between the missionary and those served, an embracing of the world as the parish, and a recognition that all are poor in some way. This is particularly true for the growing movement of United Methodist STM. Its leaders must assess their priorities in formation of the laity to admonish John Wesley’s call to "labour to do of the ability which God giveth."

In my final post in this series, I will suggest a Wesleyan biblical theology of mission that STM leaders can use in shaping their congregations’ engagement in STM.

[1] Team Leader Handbook (Birmingham, AL: United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, 2015), 6-7; Lyons, R. G. Preparing for the Journey: A Devotional Guide for Teams, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2016.
[2] Jones, U. and J. Blankenbake. A Mission Journey: A Handbook for Volunteers (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 2014), 17.
[3] A Mission Journey, 19.
[4] A Mission Journey, 145-49.


  1. This is an excellent post that shows that the bible is not used to articulate a theology to guide all activities and ministries of the church. I look forward to Dr. Hayne's next post.

  2. I'll note a tool at that will send every member of a short term team a scripture and short devotion that leads them through a Biblical theology of mission. This has been an identified problem for a long time.

    Just as big? No consideration of culture and cultural difference in training STM mission groups and leaders.